From the moment President Barack Obama arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday for the launch of this week’s Middle East trip, the question on everyone’s minds was whether it signifies a re-engagement by the administration in efforts to achieve an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As a candidate, and throughout the early part of his first term, the president and members of his administration made clear that they understood the significance of the conflict and its negative impact on U.S. interests and security. But having been burned in his initial attempts at Middle East peacemaking, and with more than enough other concerns, there were doubts about whether he would re-enter the fray.
The president’s speech Thursday in Jerusalem answered that question in the affirmative.
“The easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do,” Mr. Obama told a gathering of students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. “That would be the easiest political path. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future,” and laid out a list of reasons why peace with the Palestinians, and the region, was not only possible, but necessary, and encouraged the assembled students to push their leaders to take risks for that peace.
The question now becomes, having placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict squarely back on his agenda, will the president commit energies of his administration toward resolving it?
Back in June 2012, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported that “a renewed push for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians” would remain high on president’s list, but with a significant caveat. “The President would not get personally involved, as his two predecessors did,” Mr. Lizza wrote, “unless he was certain that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wanted a deal.” While hopefully an overstatement, because if true it would essentially hand Mr. Netanyahu a veto on an issue of considerable importance to U.S. national security, in broader terms it makes some sense: The president won’t fully engage unless there’s a genuine chance of achieving the goal.
It appears that the task of determining the answer to this question, of whether it will be possible to tee up a productive process with a decidedly pro-settler government in Israel and a weakened and weakening Palestinian Authority, will fall to Mr. Obama’s new Secretary of State, former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Kerry described his view of the importance to the U.S. of resolving the conflict. “So much of what we aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is tied to what can or doesn’t happen with respect to Israel-Palestine,” Kerry said. This was broadly consistent with the way that other members of the Obama administration have described the issue.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Dan Kurtzer suggested that Secretary Kerry’s joining the president for this trip is an important move toward empowering the new Secretary of State. “It’s likely that [the president]’s going to go and lay his hands on Kerry as his designated point person for the peace process, which is critically important,” Mr. Kurtzer told me last month. “Parties in the region need to know that the Secretary of State has the president’s backing.”
As for the way forward, Mr. Kurtzer believes that the time for half-measures is over. “We’ve had twenty years to know that approach based on incremental, interim agreements doesn’t work,” said Kurtzer. “It doesn’t mean that we have to lay down a plan right away, but we ought to have a larger idea of where we want to go, so that our Chief Diplomat, Mr. Kerry, will have a sense of direction, a GPS.”
One indication of the way Mr. Kerry might go was a story in the Israeli press – always worth taking with a grain of salt – that he would seek to revive the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, an offer by the Arab League of full normalization with Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation that began in 1967.
A major sticking point for the Israelis was the Initiative’s call for the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which was interpreted as a demand for a return of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. Still, many in Israel and elsewhere were critical of the Israeli government’s failure to respond sufficiently to an offer of such historical importance.
One of those critics was former President Bill Clinton. “The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘if you work it out with the Palestinians… we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership,’” Mr. Clinton told a bloggers roundtable in 2011. “This is huge… It's a heck of a deal.”
In April 2011, a number of liberal Israelis promulgated the Israeli Peace Initiative, which called on the Israeli government to “accept the Arab initiative of 2002 as a basis for negotiations for peace agreements in the area.” One of the leaders of this initiative is Jacob Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet security service who is now the number two man in Yesh Atid, the new party that made a surprising second-place showing in Israel’s recent elections, and is now a member of the governing coalition.
This is admittedly a slim reed of hope amid a steadily deteriorating situation, as constant settlement building threatens to irreversibly embed Israel within the land necessary for a viable Palestinian state. Much depends on whether the administration is able to parlay the success of the president’s Israel visit into pressure, even behind-the-scenes pressure, on its government to take meaningful steps toward ending the occupation.
Going to Israel to give it a big hug is fine, Mr. Kurtzer said, as long as it’s connected to a larger strategy. “If all you’re doing is feeding into Israel’s security concerns then you don’t have a peace process. To me, the key to successful process is that Israel understands two things: You will help with security, and the [U.S.-Israel] relationship is constant.”
Once you achieve that, he said, “Then we have to make clear to Israel that they have to make tough choices.”
In Thursday’s speech, President Obama made clear to his Israeli audience that such choices were necessary. It remains to be seen if and how he will ask Israelis to make those choices.
Matthew Duss is National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington.